The pandemic disrupted sex ed when students needed it most

Young people seeing explicit content is a

Sex education in the US left much to be desired long before 2020. States have wildly different mandates around what's covered, from only requiring HIV education to emphasizing abstinence to prohibitions around covering LGBTQ topics. Some states don't mandate sex education at all.

Now, enter a pandemic.

Like all schooling, sex ed shifted to virtual-only and presented unique challenges when COVID hit. While educators saw a few pluses, such as Zoom anonymity increasing engagement, they were outweighed by the negatives, like lack of access to virtual resources and Zoom burnout.

While the quality of sex ed students receive vary greatly from state to state — and district to district — overall, most young people receive poor sex education, said Eva Goldfarb, professor of public health at Montclair State University and human sexuality and sex educator at the college level.

Sex education was already a low priority in districts where it wasn't required, said Goldfarb, so she believes it was probably "the first to go" at the start of the pandemic to make way for core classes like math and social studies.

The heightened importance of sex ed

This couldn't come at a worse time. Sex education is arguably more important now than ever, said Brittany McBride, associate director of sex education at youth sexual health and rights non-profit Advocates for Youth.

When schools moved online, McBride explained, some gave children internet access (via computers, laptops, or tablets) while at the same time lessening adult supervision, as teachers aren't with them and parents either had to go to work or work from home. Furthermore, a student's entire day is accounted for when they're in-person. This isn't the case online.

Not to mention that this is all occurring during high-stress "unprecedented times."

"What's the first thing anyone can think of to make themselves feel better?" McBride asked when speaking about anxious students. "Maybe it's checking out some porn. Maybe it's exploring your body or meeting up with someone and doing that."

School-sanctioned tech usually has firewalls and safety parameters to ensure students don't see explicit content, but that doesn't mean it's not a possibility, said McBride. Further, personal devices usually don't have such protections. Children seeing explicit content is a when, she said, not an if.

Combine unsupervised internet access with a high-stress situation, and the result is children learning about sex online without an educational framework. The need for sex education across subjects such as media literacy — which proved controversial when sex-positive educator Justine Ang Fonte taught classes on porn literacy and later resigned after parent uproar — appeared more imperative than ever.

Lack of access and resources

This need was unfortunately not met for many students. In some schools, sex ed is a limited part of a health class, which students don't take every year, explained Susan Milstein, clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M University and human sexuality educator on the medical review team of Women's Health Initiative. If health class fell by the wayside amid the pandemic, those children may never have formal sex ed before they graduate.

In cases where outside agencies come in to teach sex ed, Milstein said it may have been dropped entirely. While Milstein couldn't speak to how common this is, schools without a health teacher qualified or comfortable talking about sex may bring in an external agency. Sometimes, she said, schools may use an outside agency with a specific bent (like pro-abstinence) in order to appease concerned parents or administrators.

Access has always been an issue with sex education. Not every state mandates it, and even fewer require it to be medically accurate, culturally appropriate, and unbiased. Further, up until recently, there weren't teacher preparedness standards or a national standard to follow, though both are now a reality thanks to Future of Sex Education (FoSE), a collaboration of the top national sex ed organizations like Advocates for Youth, sex ed advancement group SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States), and Answer. States aren't required to follow these guidelines, however.

In the pandemic, this lack of access was exacerbated by the digital divide, which affects the 77 million Americans who don't have an adequate internet connection at home. While sex educator Eli Scriver widened the geographic reach of his teaching, he found through talking to fellow teachers for a research project that access to remote sex ed decreased for people with lower socioeconomic status.

Goldfarb, too, fears students without access to adequate internet are going to fall further and further behind, in sex education and in other subjects.

Censorship presented another hurdle for students' access to sex ed material, said Scriver. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram ban sexual content, and educational posts often gets lumped in. The same is true for TikTok; even though educators flock there, the content can get flagged as well. Further, anyone can make an account on TikTok and spread false information. In addition to social media sites, Scriver said a quiz he uploaded on education platform Kahoot was taken down, though it was later restored as private content after he reached out. School-issued computers may even block sex ed websites.

Zoom, thankfully, doesn't block any content. If they did, Scriver said, educators would be in a very different boat.

Thankfully, too, there are sites like AMAZE that Goldfarb praised. Amaze provides animated sex education videos for pre-teens. Sometimes teachers contact the site because school-sanctioned computers automatically block it with keyword matches, an AMAZE spokesperson told Mashable, but usually a school's IT department can solve this for them.

"No one can sit on Zoom for four hours."

Censorship is just one challenge some educators faced. When moving curricula online, teachers faced a lack of support from districts or administrators, Scriver noted.

Scriver had the onerous task, as many did, of choosing which information was crucial to keep. He and his co-facilitator ended up cutting the curriculum in half. "Originally it was four hours twice a week," he said, "and no one can sit on Zoom for four hours."

The most difficult part of the process was making sure he met his objectives like vocabulary and skills (like how to put on a condom) while still being engaging. The experience inspired Scriver to speak to fellow sex educators and research about what the experience of teaching virtual sex ed during the pandemic was like for them.

The attempts to make virtual class engaging

The issue of engagement popped up often in Scriver's talks with other facilitators. On one hand, anonymous engagement over Zoom made it easier for students to chat freely. If teachers allowed them to turn cameras to be turned off, they wouldn't be seen — something impossible in a real-life classroom.

"I was surprised [that] students asked more challenging questions more quickly," Goldfarb said of her college students. "The community building happened more quickly, and I think that's all because of this sense of privacy."

Goldfarb said participation increased and people who normally wouldn't feel comfortable participating in a classroom with 30 other students now did.

The transition to virtual-only sex education wasn't easy for many teachers.
The transition to virtual-only sex education wasn't easy for many teachers. Credit: bob al-greene / mashable

For other teachers, however, engagement tanked in virtual classes. Milstein said some of her college students felt pressure to hide who they were. "They were living in places where they couldn’t fully express their opinions during class or be their true selves," she said. "And that was usually because of where they were while they were in class — either in an apartment with very little privacy, or at home with their parents."

If teachers or administrators didn't allow cameras off, there's the fear of being recorded and being watched — and watching yourself, too. This made building trust with students, an essential task when teaching this sensitive subject, that much more difficult, said Scriver.

Online sex also lacks a necessary tactical aspect, such as being able to touch a condom or taste lube. Educators weren't able to liven up class with physical resources like this, or with anatomical models. Sometimes, though, teachers did send physical materials to their students to maintain some of that stimulation, Scriver said.

Advocates for Youth also found it challenging to create an engaging class, said McBride. The result — and one positive of the experience — was the creativity that sprouted from educators. Districts created videos, podcasts, and tried to be creative over Zoom (like using a potato filter).

Still, for many students reached by Advocates for Youth, engagement took a hit thanks to the burnout that was palpable for both students and educators.

"Teaching fully online is exhausting," said Goldfarb. "It's exhausting for everyone...It takes so much more energy for so little of the interpersonal feedback that I feed off of."

Where will sex ed go from here?

Educators sought out community to address the pitfalls of pandemic sex ed like lack of resources and burnout, Scriver said. With the former, the educators he spoke to created professional development classes and groups.

Teachers also created loopholes and workarounds in language used to handle censorship, said Scriver.

In terms of burnout, they provided accommodations as best they could, said Scriver. Goldfarb said she learned to give both herself and her students some grace. She became increasingly flexible teaching online.

"I pulled back on expectations and tried to do less [but still] try to cover my entire curriculum," she said. "I let go of hard deadlines for assignments, I allowed do-overs on quizzes, and I changed some assessments so that students could show me what they learned rather than whether they learned what I thought they should."

Because of the hiccups, many teachers will jump at the first chance to go back to in-person, the experts said.

Overwhelmingly, said McBride, teachers and students want to get back in the classroom. She cited retention issues (across the board, not just with sex ed) and the ability to better check on students' wellbeing as top reasons.

"Teaching fully online is exhausting."

At the same time, some districts had recognized that a virtual option can be helpful to some, but McBride doesn't see virtual sex ed happening in a large capacity.

Scriver, meanwhile, intended to work in virtual education even before the pandemic. "Things were moving online prior to this," Scriver said, acknowledging that other educators like him taught virtually prior to COVID. For those with adequate internet but without formal sex ed in schools, an online option increases access.

He still has that goal of teaching virtually, and he spoke with other educators who will go fully online as well. He also spoke with those who'll keep a virtual option on the docket that schools can request.

Goldfarb agreed that there are more and more resources becoming available online, and doesn't foresee that changing. She pointed to this resource list from sex ed advancement group SIECUS as well as Planned Parenthood's sex ed site and Sex, etc for teens by teens.

For her own classes, she'll go back to teaching in-person — mostly. She misses the interpersonal exchanges and being able to read students' reactions. Because of increased participation in virtual classes, however, she'll do a few online classes every semester to enable conversations that are harder to have face-to-face (such as around sexual assault).

All students deserve high-quality sex education. In fact, students crave it, said Goldfarb. If sex education isn't taken seriously by schools, however, it won't be impactful, no matter what format it's taught.

Groups like FoSE and educators like the ones interviewed are determined to make sex education better, however — even amidst pandemic burnout and other issues.

"Where [sex ed is] done well and it's truly what it should be," said Goldfarb, "it's one of the things students look forward to the most."

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